By Joe Roman, a conservation biologist and author.
Last month, Alaska solicited proposals to quantify the costs of protecting polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. The bear had been listed as threatened in 2008, the first species to be federally protected because of global warming. Some Alaskans objected, afraid that listing would restrict drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, where the bears have critical habitat. At first, the state bankrolled a public relations effort to overturn the listing, but when that effort failed, they looked to alternatives. Could they show that listing the polar bear came at too high a price?
In my book, Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act, I discuss the tradeoffs involved in protecting rare and threatened species. Alaska’s solicitation is part of an unfortunate tradition that focuses solely on the costs of protecting species, rather than including the many benefits that can come from conservation. In the polar bear’s case, this may include ecotourism, of value to the state; the dependence of the Inuit on the bear for spiritual and physical sustenance; and the preservation of sea-ice habitat, which can benefit us all.
Beyond these services is the value of conservation itself, whether it’s stewardship, the many people who are employed, or volunteer, to protect the bears, or the value of bequesting the bear to our grand children. And finally there’s the value we put on the very existence of the polar bear -- how much would we pay to keep the bear on earth, whether we or our offspring ever had a chance to see it or not?